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    A Times Editorial

    Please pardon my friends

    It is the corrupt system of campaign finance thatallows people to buy friendship which influences the pardoning power of a president.

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2001

    Those searching for a clear quid pro quo in the Clinton pardons scandal are missing the point. The Clintons and the people around them are too smart and subtle to leave behind direct evidence of a deal involving pardons in exchange for money or votes. Yet the perception of impropriety is undeniable when so many special favors are doled out to those with special access to the presidency. Millions of Americans are eligible for pardons or clemencies, but no one was really surprised when a large percentage of the hundreds granted by President Clinton went to people with close personal or political connections to the White House.

    As usual, President Clinton didn't cross any lines that some of his predecessors hadn't crossed before. He just did it more often and more shamelessly. The list of well-connected beneficiaries of previous presidents' favors runs from Armand Hammer and George Steinbrenner to Richard Nixon and Caspar Weinberger. But no other president hung out a going-out-of-business sign that fairly advertised (if only to those insiders with good enough access to know where to look) that last-minute pardons were for sale.

    In most cases, the down payments were made long before the question of a pardon was directly raised. For example, Denise Rich, the former wife of fugitive financier Marc Rich, contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Democratic Party, the Clinton library and other Clinton causes over the past eight years. Mrs. Rich also was a guest at the White House more than a dozen times during that period. Are we to believe that it never occurred to her -- or to the Clintons -- until a few weeks ago that she might one day ask her new best friends to do a very big favor for her former husband?

    Most of the country was shocked to learn of President Clinton's gross abuse of the normal pardon and clemency review process. But those closest to the Clintons knew exactly how they operated. First brothers Roger Clinton and Hugh Rodham understood and got in on the game. Former White House counsel Jack Quinn understood and went to work for Rich. William Cunningham, the treasurer of Hillary Clinton's U.S. Senate campaign in New York, understood and got himself hired to represent two Arkansas men convicted of tax-related charges. Harry Thomason, the Clintons' longtime Hollywood friend, made entreaties to the president on behalf of pardon applicants -- and in the meantime, then-President Clinton made a call to CBS that resulted in the network's dropping a billing dispute that saved Thomason and his wife a million dollars. The list of other insiders who bypassed the normal pardon review process is much longer.

    Why go searching for a quid pro quo when the evidence of improper influence is smacking you in the face? Like everyone else, presidents have friends and relatives who may occasionally embarrass them, but only a corrupt system of campaign finance allows people such as Denise Rich to buy a president's "friendship." Until that system is reformed and fumigated, even presidents with truer ethical compasses than the Clintons will be compromised by the inherent conflicts it creates.

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